Interview conducted by John Simpson of the BBC with President Bashar al-Asad
Mr Simpson: Mr President, welcome and thank you very much for doing this interview with us. It is a rare occasion, and you have to forgive me if some of my questions are blunt, because sometimes it is impossible to be too polite about some things. For instance, Syria has a really unenviable reputation in many countries of the West. For instance, the United States has publicly said, or American officials publicly said that Syria is a member of the axis of evil. Your country harbors people that others would regard as terrorists.
President Assad: First of all, you are most welcome in Syria. I am going to be very direct as usual. Actually, everybody care about their reputation, but we care more about reality. Reputation is matter of perception. The question is: do some in the West perceive the reality in our region as it is or as they want? The events in our region, especially after September 11 in New York, and after the invasion of Afghanistan, and especially after the invasion of Iraq proved that we were right; and maybe there is some denial by most of them to confess that they were wrong. But actually, many of those officials in the West that you have mentioned in your question revised their policies. And it was proven that they were wrong. Actually, when they accused Syria about supporting terrorism anywhere, they wanted to make Syria a scapegoat to blame it for every single mistake they make; and they absolve themselves from any responsibility.
Mr Simpson: But might it not be better not to have close links with groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, not to have such a close alliance with Iran, not to allow weapons to go to Hizbullah, not to allow insurgents to pass into Iraq from your country?
President Assad: Some of the biggest mistakes made by the West – I know that the term West is very broad, but I have to use it because I cannot name every country – was to use labels as a base for political action. It does not matter what you label organizations or people or countries. The most important thing in politics is whether they have effect or not. As long as they are effective on the ground, among the people, you have to deal with them. And when they have the support of the people, you cannot label them as terrorist, because this way you label the people as terrorist. You cannot say this country is a terrorist country, and this people is a terrorist people. This is not objective; and that is why most of the policies undertaken by the West for the past few years toward our region have failed.
As for Hamas and Hizbullah, both are part and parcel of the Lebanese and Palestinian societies. And do not believe that there is any organization which sends its people and members to die for a third country. This is not realistic. They die when they have a cause. Do not believe that any one of them could be strong and win elections in both countries, whether to be at the helm of the government or in municipal elections when they represent only themselves or part of their society. When they win these elections, it means that they have the full support of their people, and of course the support of the people in the region. In Iraq the situation is different. We do not know which party or parties – or there might be no parties at all – take part in the resistance. In Iraq, they have two things: there is the chaos and terrorism and you have the resistance. Our public stand is that we condemn every single attack against civilians and the innocent in Iraq. Some times there are suicide bombers who kill tens and hundreds in one day. While attacking occupying forces is normal.
Mr Simpson: It is acceptable!
President Assad: Whether we accept it or not, it is normal, it is a fact. Wherever you have occupation in the region, for the last 150 years at least - we can go further back in history, but at least for the past 150 years – you have the same reaction to every occupation. The British were in Iraq at the beginning of the last century and they faced the same thing, Israel in Lebanon, Israel in Palestine, and now the British, American and other troops in Iraq. This is a normal reaction whether we accept it or not. So, it is better to accept what is normal.
Mr Simpson: ِِAre you prepared to help the people who kill British and American soldiers?
President Assad: First of all, we are against the occupation, and we warned the British and the Americans before the war that whenever you are going to win the war – and you are going to win it – you are going to ask the whole world to extricate you from this quagmire – and they are in a quagmire. Of course, if it is normal, and we have to accept the normal, of course, resistance is one of our concepts that we adopt, not against the British or the Americans in particular, but as a concept, against any occupying forces in the world. Even the UN Charter gave people the right to resist, whatever kind or resistance, whether it is military or through any other way, resistance is the right of the people. It is very normal for us to support it and adopt it.
Mr Simpson: So, you do allow insurgent to pass across the border into Iraq.
President Assad: No, this is something else, because first of all the resistance in Iraq is Iraqi resistance. It does not come from anywhere outside the border. Second, the insurgents, as we understand them, are the terrorists who go and kill the Iraqis. They try sometimes to come through the borders because, you know, terrorism has no borders. It is like the internet. It flows from place to place with no restrictions; but we tried our best and succeeded somehow in preventing many of those to go to Iraq. But, anyway, Iraq has now been transfigured into a nexus for terrorism. So, nobody can stop it. But we do not allow and we do not support them because first for the Iraqis, and second for our own interest, because if you allow terrorists to attack somewhere anywhere in the world, it would attack you later. So, how is the situation going to be if you allow it in your neighbouring countries.
Mr Simpson: Let me get this absolutely right. You understand the reasons for the insurgency, either against Israel or against the British and American forces in Iraq, but you do not help them.
President Assad: I have to be very precise about the definition. The insurgency is something against the law. We do not support it. As to resistance, we adopt it as a concept. That does not mean that you support it with money or armaments. I am talking about the political concept. We adopt it as a right. It is like when you in the West say that you adopt the human rights bill legally. That does not mean that you support it with money or you take action or whatever.
Mr Simpson: I see. But you helped Hizbullah and you allowed them to have weapons that came from Syria, did you not?
President Assad: Usually, and from our experience in the region, whenever you have resistance, you have public support. Whenever you have public support, they will be able to get arms from anywhere.
Mr Simpson: Can I just ask you: you did help Hizbullah with weapons, did you not?
President Assad: No, we helped them politically. We usually help them politically.
Mr Simpson: Are you prepared to work with the international community in preventing new weapons getting to Hizbullah in Lebanon?
President Assad: Yes, this is part of the UN resolution 1701 which we supported. So, are we going to implement part of it or the whole resolution? Was this resolution passed to help the region and to prevent another war, or was it passed just against Hizbullah? If it is going to be implemented as a whole - we said that we do not agree about all the points in it - but we are going to support it in order not to have another war. For example, there are incessant encroachments by the Israeli aircraft and troops into Lebanese airspace and territory on a daily basis. Why does not the international community interfere and talk to the Israelis about this resolution. So, it is not a matter of Hizbullah. The whole resolution should be implemented. This is how we see it.
Mr Simpson: How has the fighting in Lebanon in July and August changed things in this part of the Middle East?
President Assad: First, it did not change the position of Syria. But it changed the vision in some other countries in the world, especially the United States and some of its allies in the West. They used to think that military force is the omnipotent power and that it can solve anything. That was proved to be wrong. And it has proved a very important thing: if you do not tackle the issues politically, armies cannot do anything, no matter how strong the army is.
Mr Simpson: American officials are saying they do not think you can or will help with the peace process; and so they do not think there is any point in talking to you.
President Assad: You have to ask them on what basis they say that.
Mr Simpson: Well, I suppose they say because they feel that you are not moving towards negotiations with Israel, for instance. Are you prepared to move towards negotiations with Israel?
President Assad: If we draw an analogy with a car, it is not one car with one driver. The peace process has more than one party, and all of them have to drive in the same direction. You say in English, ‘it takes two to tango’. So, if one of the dancers is dancing tango and the other is dancing waltz but thinks that he is dancing tango, both of them will fall.
Mr Simpson: Which are you dancing? If you are favourable or you are helping, in one way or another, Israel’s enemies, it is going to be very hard to say, well we can negotiate with you openly.
President Assad: The ideal thing to achieve peace is to implement international law, UN resolutions and Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. So, the conditions to achieve peace are the international conditions. This is very simple, in order not to make it complicated. If you ask the parties, each one has its own vision, you make it complicated. Nobody will make concessions at the end. So, it is better to be committed to the international will if you talk about the will or if you talk about the vision. We are committed to this will and to this vision. Are the Israelis committed to it? This is first. Second, what is the role of the United States? It is not only the problem between the two parties. You need an impartial arbiter. This is the role of the United States. This is the supportive role of the United Nations and this is the supportive role of the Europeans. So far, the United States does not have the will to play this role and does not have the vision for peace. Of course they do not have a vision towards Iraq, they do not have a vision towards terrorism and about many other issues. But I am talking now about peace. If you go back to the very beginning, whether we can or we cannot, no, Syria by itself cannot make peace with itself. We should make it with all these factors so that we can achieve peace. Now we do not have this environment, we do not have this good climate to achieve peace.
Mr Simpson: So, now is not the time.
President Assad: It is always the time. I mean we do not have the factors. On the contrary, it is the time, especially after war. After war, you talk about peace, but that does not mean we have the environment to achieve it or to move toward it.
Mr Simpson: Some senior politicians in Israel are saying it is now time for Israel to start talking to Syria. I mean, if that were the case, if the prime minister, as opposed to some of his other ministers, were to say to you, we are ready for talks, what would your answer be then?
President Assad: Actually, I started talking about peace. So, we have to wait for their answer.
Mr Simpson: Are you waiting for an answer from them?
President Assad: As I said, it is not only them, because we do not know if this government is strong enough to move toward peace, like what happened during Barak’s term in 2000, when we went to Wye Plantation to meet with the Israelis, and you can read that in the memoirs of former US president Bill Clintion, when he mentions that the Syrians were ready to deliver, while the Israelis were not because of internal issues. So, the first question is can they and do they have the will? The other question is, as some say, the decision for peace now is not in Israel, it is in Washington. I did not only read this in the newspapers and magazines, but actually many officials in Europe and in the Arab world heard that from the Americans. If the Americans do not have the will, the Israelis cannot move without the United States. Third, as I mentioned earlier, that depends on the will and the vision of the United States.
Mr Simpson: And that is not there, you think, at the moment.
President Assad: So far, there was no dialogue, so how can we tell. We only expect, we hear from others. But can you achieve peace without making dialogue with all the parties. We cannot. How can you talk about peace and at the same time about isolation. How can you talk about peace and you adopt the doctrine of preemption, preemptive war? This contradicts 180 degrees with the concept of peace. You cannot adopt both.
Mr Simpson: One of the problems, particularly in Israel, is that people there feel absolutely certain that Syria is dedicated to wiping out Israel as a state. Your friend and ally, president Ahmadinejad of Iran has spoken about wiping Israel off the face of the globe. What do you say about that? Is that your idea as well?
President Assad: Your question is evidence that they do not read thinks very carefully. They do not read the lines and they do not read between the lines. I am not going to give you my opinion. I will give the facts. How can we ask for wiping Israel and at the same time ask for peace and negotiations. We had negotiations in the 1990s with Israel. Do you make negotiations and put peace as a goal to wipe out somebody? We talked about normal relations and all these details. This not objective.
Mr Simpson: So, would you accept that, at some future stage, no matter how long it takes, Syria and Israel could live side by side in peace and harmony accepting each other’s existence?
President Assad: Yes, the answer is yes.
Mr Simpson: No problems about that at all?
President Assad: Of course not. Why do we want to achieve peace, to have war? This is self-evident. I agree about what you said.
Mr Simpson: Down the decades, Syria’s influence in Lebanon has divided the different groups in the country, and of course most recently there was the murder of prime minister Hariri, which one UN report said could only have been carried out with the knowledge of the Syrian intelligence system.
President Assad: The assassination of Hariri has affected Syria as bad as it affected Lebanon. Hariri was a real ally of Syria. He was never against Syria. He supported Syria in many difficult positions and stands. So, there was no single convincing reason to push Syria to do such a thing.
Mr Simpson: Supposing the UN does turn up evidence that Syrian intelligence agents, for instance, who were very active in Lebanon and elsewhere, had been responsible. I know this is a hypothetical question, but would you put them on trial, would you deal with them?
President Assad: Yes, we announced that publicly. They would be prosecuted first of all in Syria. Now the question whether it is going to be an international tribunal or anything else is too early to answer. So far, our law says that whoever proves to be complicit in such an atrocity is considered a traitor, and a traitor is punished by the most sever punishment.
Mr Simpson: But forgive me, is it possible that the president would not know what the security people of his country are doing?
President Assad: This means you presume that somebody in our intelligence took part in this. We are not convinced of that.
Mr Simpson: It is what the UN report said.
President Assad: As far as we know, no Syrian is involved, whether in the state, the intelligence, or any other apparatus within or outside the state.
Mr Simpson: Syria is a difficult country for outsiders to understand. It is a very closed society. It does not exercise its affairs in public. We know very little about this country. Forgive me for asking this: are you really the man in charge, or does somebody tell you what to do?
President Assad: Of course none of this is true. I know what you mean. I am in charge of course legally. But some people in the West used to say he is not in control and somebody else is controlling him. At the same time they say he is a dictator. I answered this many times. If I am a dictator I should be very strong, and if I am not in charge I should be very weak to be a dictator. So, they have to make up their mind about this. I have my authority according to the constitution. I am fully in charge according to these authorities I have, but at the same time you have to keep consulting with the largest possible number of people regarding anything.
Mr Simpson: When you took over in 2000, people talked about the Damascus spring, that things were going to change, it was going to be possible for people to speak openly, there were going to be forms of democracy that have not been shown before. Some of those things or a few of them have happened, but for the most part Syria is still just as controlled as it was under your father.
President Assad: First of all, we did not say that reform means to loose control. It has to be under control. We need a strong state. We never thought of a weak state in Syria. It is never part of our reform and we never talked about it in Syria. For us reform is to have prosperity. Prosperity has more than one field: political, economic, cultural, social, whatever. But you have priorities: you cannot do everything at the same time, you cannot do it in a short time if we are talking about real reform. I am not talking about pro forma ones. I am talking about real reform. The most difficult problem that people suffer from is the economic situation. We are a poor country not a rich country. Wherever I go as an official I meet people and the first thing they talk about are their wages, not having a job, having good schools for their children, having medical services. Sometimes they do not have the basic things in most of the regions.
Mr Simpson: But it is your intention to open up Syrian society.
President Assad: Yes, of course. This is our interest and this is our goal.
Mr Simpson: I have got one last question to ask you: for much of your career, you were an ophthalmic surgeon in London - part of it was in London. Now, you are the president of a country which many people fear; and some people think is a ferocious dictatorship. What does it feel like to move from examining and healing people’s eyes to being in charge of a country like Syria?
President Assad: If you are a dictator, people should hate you. Do not believe that people like dictators. So, I think if you want to have the real answer, you would better ask the Syrians and they will tell you. How can you be a dictator and at the same time, as in your earlier question, I am not in charge? This is the contradiction.
Mr Simpson: Which would you prefer, though, being an ophthalmic surgeon or to be president of Syria?
President Assad: Actually, that depends on how many people you can help, or how much good work you can do for the national interest. I definitely enjoy being an ophthalmologist, but now I think whatever decision I can make is going to have a broader effect on my country.
Mr Simpson: Thank you very much in deed.
President Assad: Thank you, and thank you for coming to Syria.